The ongoing saber-rattling by Vladimir Putin has raised concerns about a nuclear conflict to a level not seen since the 1980s. Nuclear strategists have tried to calm nerves, insisting that the odds of the situation escalating to one that would lead to such a disastrous scenario are remote. Still, António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, acknowledged this week that “the prospect of nuclear war is now back within the realm of possibility.”
Those stark statements have caused some Americans to wonder if they’re in a high-target area. While the overall risk of nuclear war is low, and there’s no telling where Putin will strike in the unlikely scenario that he decides to attack the U.S., people in a handful of states are likely feeling a bit more uncomfortable than folks in other parts of the country.
During the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, government officials began to install intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in the middle of the country, specifically in sparsely populated areas of northern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota. These were designed to be the first targets in the event of an attack—a “nuclear sponge” that would draw fire away from more urban areas.
A term like nuclear sponge isn’t reassuring, but the thinking goes like this, as specified by retired General Jim Mattis in his 2017 confirmation hearings for secretary of defense: Because the missiles are buried so deeply in the ground in those areas, enemies would need to commit two, three, or four weapons to take each one out, thus “absorbing” much of the enemy’s arsenal.
Because the silos are located in sparsely populated areas of the Plains, proponents argue that fewer lives are put at direct risk. But the logic of designating an area as a prime attack zone in a nuclear conflict is puzzling to many—and the concept of a nuclear sponge is one that has drawn criticism for decades. In 1978, Dominic Paolucci, a retired Navy captain who served on the Strat-X team that assessed U.S. strategic options in the 1960s, railed against the strategy saying, “It is madness to use United States real estate as ‘a great sponge to absorb’ Soviet nuclear weapons. The objective of our military forces and strategy should be to reduce the weight of any potential attack on U.S. real estate rather than attracting even more.”
There are plenty of other arguments to be made today. Nukes, of course, no longer have to be delivered via ICBMs and can be launched from submarines and bombers. And Russia’s arsenal reportedly has more than 1,500 warheads deployed on strategic long-range systems and almost 3,000 in reserve. That’s more than enough to strike larger cities in addition to saturating the sponge.
Despite the criticism, the U.S. appears to be committed to the idea of a nuclear sponge in those five states. The Pentagon plans to spend $264 billion on its next-generation ICBM program, which would upgrade the silos and missiles, and ensure the absorbency of the sponge for decades to come.